Having taken a short sabbatical from my National Theatre At Home Thursdays I was interested to see that they have added some new content since I last visited. Latest additions are The Deep Blue Sea “in fond memory” of the late Helen McCrory, The Comedy Of Errors with Lenny Henry and the Bridge Theatre version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream about which the least said the better. Then there’s the big hitter production of All My Sons with not one but two bona fide American film actors in the leading roles. Having seen two of the productions already when they were streamed last year and having no particular urge to see another Errors, it was a no brainer as to what to watch.
Arthur Miller’s first big success came in the late 1940s looking back to recent events (based on reality by all accounts) of things that had happened during World War 2. A successful manufacturing firm knowingly supplies faulty cylinder heads causing the deaths of a number of pilots. One of the manufacturers goes to jail, the other is exonerated. Miller’s play focuses on the repercussions for the latter, Joe Keller, who is living with the guilt and of his family who are suffering the consequences. To make their plight worse their own eldest son, Larry, has gone missing in action and is presumed dead by all except his mother Kate who stubbornly and heartbreakingly clings on to the belief that he will turn up. Meanwhile younger son Chris has fallen for Larry’s girlfriend Anne and she is harbouring a deep dark secret. Thus Miller has constructed an intimate four way tragedy which plays out over the events of one day and night with serious consequences for all.
The set by Max Jones is a striking recreation of a middle American home with intimations of Edward Hopper. It’s clearly in a nice neighbourhood and the action for the main quartet is repeatedly punctuated by the regular arrival and departure of various residents all of whom seem to have their own more minor tragedies to contend with. There’s a strong ensemble portraying these rather less exciting roles who help counterpoint the almost overwhelming events as the various chickens come home to roost for the Kellers. The younger pairing of Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman is spot on with both actors providing very strong characterisations heavy on inner turmoil/tension. Coleman particularly is completely believable as Anne torn in every direction by the contents of a letter she has kept from the others. Morgan also is utterly credible as the hopeful idealist who finds out that the foundations of his world are built on sand. Both have completely convincing accents too.
No such difficulty there for Bill Pullman and Sally Field playing the older pair who speak in their regular brogue. I don’t know how much stage work the pair of them have done but they seem more than comfortable with live performance and give unshowy but heartfelt performances. Fields looks drawn and full of angst throughout, wrapped up in her own world which doesn’t allow for admitting the terrible truth about her older son or her husband. In extremis she does make a rather odd quavering sound which personally I found distracting but that aside her characterisation is admirable for all the right reasons. Pullman’s Joe meanwhile hides his dark act beneath a carapace of bonhomie making wisecracks and encouraging the locals to congregate round him; ironic then that it is revealed that they all know him for what he really is. Pullman’s last exit clearly displays a man right on the edge and desperate that his feet of clay have been exposed.
It’s still a powerful piece given a punchy production by Headlong and Jeremy Herrin’s direction and its comments on the driving forces of capitalism are as relevant as they ever were. More than anything though it’s an update of the Greek tragic mode in which the sins of the older generation are visited on the younger and will no doubt continue to reverberate down the decades. For the patriarchal Keller there is an epiphany as he finally realises that the young men he indirectly killed were “all my sons”. This leaves him only one honourable option completing the tragic cycle and hopefully helping the others to move on.
Production photos by Johan Persson
All My Sons is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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